Posted by: John Looker | 21 October, 2011

SECRET COMMANDS

The first of two poems on the same theme:

 


SECRET COMMANDS 

It’s that time of year
when swallows appear on the wires:
dark smudges
on pencil lines across the sky.

They are jittery,
jostling for position, held back,
like nuns waiting for the pope
or parents on the touchline.

Some trigger within the brain
put them on alert
and another will fire them aloft
in a single detonation.

They don’t debate. They go!
No careful analysis of pros and cons;
no committee reporting
on the options, the timing, the route.

Some secret command
deep in the subconscious mind
has launched them as one fleet,
steering them south.

Consider by contrast the human mind:
so fine, so rational!
Even in emotion we know
and can name the passions at work.

And yet … unseen … primordial signals
flash across the cells of the brain.
There are fire-lit shadows flickering still
in unremembered caves.

© John Stevens 2011

The second of these two poems can be read at:
https://johnstevensjs.wordpress.com/2011/11/20/artful-dodgers/  

 

Photograph: ‘Deciphering’ by Hannah Stoney, reproduced with permission from her website at http://thethinks.com/

 

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Responses

  1. excellent John. the perfect images ” of nuns waiting for the pope” and “fire-lit shadows flickering still in unremembered caves”
    this is one I’ll return to again

    Like

    • Thanks a lot Fred – it’s good to know it passed the test with you.

      Like

  2. I have a friend John, who lives in a cottage in the hills beyond Otley.
    Your poem takes me back to evenings sat outside when, at dusk, the swallows took over the sky and the barn behind the cottage.

    And I love those last two lines. There are indeed “fire-lit shadows flickering still in unremembered caves.”

    David

    Like

    • Yes, they are amazing aren’t they? And they started me thinking a bit.
      Thank you for commenting.

      Like

  3. “Some trigger within the brain
    put them on alert
    and another will fire them aloft
    in a single detonation”

    Magical!
    Love when you post.

    Like

  4. So civilized. The birds are ‘…like nuns waiting for the pope.’ How clear an image this is; surely what a simile is supposed to do. We can picture it even if we did not go to Catholic school. (I uncomfortably remind myself that I just wrote a bird comparison that went ‘ … like a proto-bird that remains above the sky’ Try to sketch one of those.). And these birds are well behaved too: some secret command has launched them as one ‘fleet’, going south for a little holiday, miss all that snowy weather and they do it all without the aid of human props. No wrangling committees, no debates…
    But really, humanity isn’t so bad either. ‘Consider,’ the poem continues—Consider!—‘The human mind, so fine, so rational.’… Why it can even name the emotions!
    One is tempted to say all is right with the world and get on with it, but we sneak a look back at that title. Secret Commands. Plural. Sure, there’s that one the birds obey, when they ban together, but…we can’t help but see those once jittery nuns emerge from unseen caves, smoke and fire in their eyes, so minatory in their black robes, so monstrous in their numbers. What command are they obeying?
    I’m reminded of a poem by Giuseppe Ungaretti (a very minor poet, with a reputation tainted by his Fascist involvements)
    Agony
    To die like the thirst stricken skylark;
    close upon the mirage
    Or like the quail who
    having crossed the sea
    takes rest in the very first hedges
    because he no longer
    wishes to fly
    But not to live on lament
    like a blinded finch
    ‘Secret Commands’ strikes me as a canny poem—is Robert Frost lurking at the edge of the field?—cool and slightly romantic, pointing with considerable subtlety (maybe too much subtlety)at secret commands it knows no one has commanded… as those nuns sit on the power lines, like a row of blind crows. I’m not sure if I like it or not, but I still have to give you an A. Maybe an A minus. Really,I’d like to see more dark smudges.

    Like

    • You are spot on with your interpretation, Jim: I started out thinking about swallows but became more interested in the nature of instinct and the question about how much we understand what’s going on inside our own minds (there are millions of years of evolution underneath our modern brains).
      The poem probably is too reminiscent of Robert Frost (I like the way he could write about one thing, usually in the countryside, while opening a window on something human). Perhaps it’s a bit too safe and obvious. So I’m very grateful for that A minus – more than deserved. Maybe I’ll manage more dark smudges next time.
      Thanks for typing up that poem by Giuseppe Ungaretti – it’s really very arresting.

      Like

  5. I like this very much. It reminded me of Larkin, not in tone but in structure at least – the everyday observation that gives rise to a probing final stanza. Did you have Plato’s cave in mind?

    Like

    • Plato’s Cave? Actually that did occur to me – those flickering shadows and the idea that we kid ourselves if we think we understand the world, and ourselves, fully.
      But the stronger image was early homo sapiens living in caves, afraid of shadows, clinging together, living closer to instincts than to reason – and all that buried only just below the surface in our own minds.
      I’m very pleased you liked the thing!

      Like

  6. You have written some lovely, evocative lines here. I especially like “dark smudges/on pencil lines across the sky” and the “single detonation”. I too was reminded of Plato’s cave. I don’t think the poem is ‘safe’ or ‘obvious’ at all; I think it raises all sorts of questions, such as should we follow our instincts less or more? Do we underestimate our instinctive knowledge? Should we try to tap into it more? Plus – maybe we sometimes congratulate ourselves too much for rising ‘above’ our instincts. We should sometimes revisit the unremembered caves, perhaps!

    Like

    • Thanks so much for thinking about this and for your comments. I hoped the piece would raise that sort of question and I’m very pleased you think it does!

      Like

  7. Hi John,
    amazing how this secret command makes them travel so far, it always is a bit sad when all those birds leave. I like the poem and the way you constructed it with some very good lines. Love it!

    Like

  8. John,

    I do like your descriptions, especially in the first stanza. It put the image exactly so in my mind.

    I have always found it interesting that most animals do like to “gather” in flocks, herds, and packs. Birds, especially, can often look as though they are of one mind, moving together whether they are in flight or sitting still. It’s a big step away, but my cows behave in a similar manner. Cows, though, are stupid animals–nothing like birds. I’m not prejudiced against cows, I have simply had to live around them for too many years.

    The ending says a lot, and I do wonder how much we have lost of what were meant to know from birth, and how much of it we unknowingly retain.

    Good reading.
    Shirley

    Like

    • Thanks for commenting Shirley. It’s funny you should mention cows – because I agree that they prompt the same questions about instinctual behaviour – but they’re less romantic than swallows! I only come close to them on walks, but they seem full of curiosity to me and often eager to come up. I don’t know whether that’s because they’ve been around humans for millennia?

      Like

  9. some really great insights/imagery here… as a bird lover, I find nothing more peaceful than watching them begin to amass in the late fall, readying themselves for further flights (as they are currently doing in my neck of the woods)

    I love that you’ve drawn the comparison between them and us, as well… truly a lovely piece

    Like

    • Many thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’m glad that the poem is acceptable to a bird lover – I’m a bit of a beginner at it but I’m learning, and the fall is a fantastic time for bird activity isn’t it?

      Like

  10. This is terrific, John. The title drew me in, and I savoured every line. Beautifully observed and thought-out – a real treat. Thank you so much.

    Like

  11. I like this poem very much. I love how you showed the ‘humanity’ of swallows with their organized migration and the animalistic side of humans with our primitive instincts. 🙂

    Like

    • Thank you. I became more interested in this comparison than in the simple sight of the birds. Not much of a naturalist I’m afraid!

      Like

  12. I’m late seeing this, but what a beautiful opening image – so deft and fine.

    Like

  13. I have very much enjoyed reading this poem. I especially like the fourth Stanza “They don’t debate. They go!”…
    I think it touches on the heart of one of our greatest faults these days as humans. Over thinking a situation. We belittle those instincts which ultimately paved the way for our social interaction with others and our first cautious steps into the wider world.
    I have the benefit of many bird visitors and watching many flocks fly overhead to their destinations. I find it fascinting. Their minds may not be wired for deeper contemplations yet in their instincts they display a powerful sense of social cohension and geographical mapping that personally makes me envious at times. 🙂
    We can learn a lot or re-learn? from nature if we’re willing to look and listen.
    Beautifully written I felt. Your eye is a gentle observer not a harsh judge that invites the reader to dwell a little and comtemplate a little longer.
    A very beautiful poem. I will be back to read more of your work.

    Like

    • That’s very generous of you – thank you. Despite the poem, I’m afraid ‘over-thinking a situation’ is a common fault of my own and I know rather too much about committees and analysing all the options! I need to take a lesson or two from nature, I guess.
      Sounds like you live in a wonderful natural environment yourself.

      Like

  14. Consider by contrast the human mind:
    so fine, so rational!
    Even in emotion we know
    and can name the passions at work.

    I have to admit that I often feel more like the swallows that are off in a shot because of some trigger. I enjoy my awareness of things in life, but I am also so painfully aware of my “primordial” symbols and signs, the stories that determine my knee jerk reactions and immediate thoughts. I’ve enjoyed reading this poem. Thank you.

    And yet … unseen … primordial signals
    flash across the cells of the brain.
    There are fire-lit shadows flickering still
    in unremembered caves.

    Like

    • Thank you – I’m glad you feel it works.

      Like

  15. Hello, John—-dropping by to re-read. Most of what I might say about this poem as a work of art—and it is a work of art—has been well said in comments above. I can only add that it does for me what I expect from a good rich poem…it moves thought and feeling in a most poignant way at a particular time of reading…..pure autumn…pure “secret command”…..purely just go…

    Like

    • Thank you so much Cynthia for those generous remarks. They give me a great deal of encouragement.

      Like


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